The Great American Muzakal

Everyone who commits the slightly demented act of remaining in theater remembers when that thrill of the stage first seized them. For me it was being cast as Lola in my high school production of Damn Yankees. I walked around the streets of Queens brazenly singing such classics as "Whatever Lola Wants," "You Gotta Have Heart," and "Shoeless Joe." My parents took me to see Fiddler on the Roof for my birthday and closed the deal. I was hooked.

You're getting this information for one simple reason: to demonstrate that I do not hate musicals. I was weaned on them. After Yankees it was Guys and Dolls, then Finian's Rainbow, Hello Dolly, Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, and so on. Not until college did I discover and become devoted to classic and contemporary drama, but I nonetheless retained my soft spot for musical theater. As the years went on, it may not have been my first choice for entertainment, but a solid piece -- with great songs, a strong story, and memorable characters -- could still hold me rapt for several hours, transported into that wonderland of fantastic tale combined with artful tune.

But I also remember a time in the mid-Eighties when I smelled something rank and bogus taking place on stage. The show was Starlight Express by the pretty/petty Andrew Lloyd Webber. Well before intermission the thought dawned on me -- gosh, this isn't a show, it's a set, it's lights, money, costumes, and more money. Why is someone spending the equivalent of a small country's budget on this piece of nothing?

That thought resurfaced the other night, again and again, at The Will Rogers Follies. The audience witnessed impeccable lighting, costumes, bosoms and buttocks exposed (impeccable bosoms and buttocks they were), dog tricks, Mexican tricks, roping tricks, the prerecorded voice of Gregory Peck, and quirky choreography by that master of glitz, Tommy Tune, who regrettably also directed in his Shirley Temple-loving sort of way. From the information I received via this show -- intended to fully portray a great man's life in revue -- I gleaned that Will Rogers starred in many of Ziegfeld's Follies and never met a man he didn't like. What I didn't catch from this winner of six Tony Awards (including Best Musical) and winner of the 1992 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album was any semblance of a book, any memorable -- or even intelligent -- lyrics, and not one number I could go home and sing in the shower.

I left the theater still wondering who Will Rogers was, what made him so endearing and amusing, and why $6.25 million got flushed down another musical toilet.

Maybe my age played a part in this reaction. I wasn't brought up on Ziegfeld's excesses of style, but then again, even in his case, many great tunes, stars, and shows emerged from under his wing. We have Florenz to thank for Show Boat, for Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, W.C. Fields, and Rogers himself. Song hits from his shows include "Shine on Harvest Moon," "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," and "Second Hand Rose." If The Will Rogers Follies possessed just a few bars of one of these songs, the evening might have proved more bearable.

For some, particularly those over a certain age, the glare and gleam suffices. There's plenty of room for oohing and ahhing, particularly during such eyeball-massaging numbers as "Favorite Son" and "Presents for Mrs. Rogers." As for Keith Carradine, I don't get it. His perpetually grinning performance remains throughout as vacuous as the content of the piece. I wonder if he ever found out who Will Rogers was. If he did, I saw no evidence of this connection and depth on the stage, so he must be saving it for the movie version. If you remember his lazy, hazy voice on his one appropriately titled hit -- "I'm Easy" -- you can imagine the lack of power in his song delivery. His co-star, Dee Hoty, another Broadway transplant, phones in her role as his wife, and although she owns a fine set of vocal cords, she actually does a wrenching torch number called "No Man Left For Me" without moving one muscle of her body. Even the ankles stay rigid.

This folly follows in the recent sickening tradition of Grand Hotel and other Spielberg-like muzakals: special effects with droning elevator melodies and a disjointed, superficial treatment of some pointless nonplot. Worse still, the musical style itself now appears to be stuck in an endlessly repeating time warp. When Lloyd Webber, Rice, Rado, Ragni, and Galt MacDermot came along, at least in the beginning they reunited musical numbers with popular tunes. Songs from Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar actually made the Billboard charts. Contemporary pop-rock crept in, as it should. The musical, to endure, needed to reflect the sounds and rhythms of contemporary society. Right?

Unfortunately, the forward movement stopped dead in the Seventies. As younger people listened to Springstreen, Hendrix, the Stones, and Elton John, musicals turned back to Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. While more mature audiences thrilled to the songs of their youth, the youth stayed away in droves. To many young people today, just the mention of the word "musical" elicits eyeballs rolling upward and a loud sigh. Boring. Not our scene.

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